Miles Franklin Shortlist 2019: Gail Jones, Jennifer Mills & Melissa Lucashenko

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Miles Franklin Shortlist 2019_The Garret

The shortlist for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced on 2 July in Sydney. Gail Jones (shortlisted for The Death of Noah Glass), Jennifer Mills (Dyschronia) and Melissa Lucashenko (Too Much Lip) appear in this interview, which was recorded on 2 and 3 July and released on 4 July 2019.

You can listen to interviews with the other three shortlisted authors - Rodney Hall, Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Gregory Day - in Part 2.

Miles Franklin Shortlist 2019 spoke to The Garret

TRANSCRIPT

ASTRID: This is the first of two special episodes of The Garret featuring the shortlist for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. The shortlist was announced on Tuesday 2 July 2019, and this interview - featuring Gail Jones, Melissa Lukashenko and Jennifer Mills - was recorded on 2 and 3 July 2019. I hope you enjoy.

Gail Jones

ASTRID: Gail Jones, welcome to The Garret.

GAIL: Thank you.

ASTRID: We are sitting here in the Mitchell Library in the Miles Franklin Room, and I have to say, this is the most impressive room The Garret has ever recorded in.

Congratulations on your short listing for The Death of Noah Glass, it is a beautiful book. This is of course not the first time that you have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Gail, I believe this is your fourth time. That is an extraordinary achievement. For Sixty Lights in 2005, Dreams of Speaking in 2007 and Sorry in 2008. Have you noticed a change in the award over the years?

GAIL: I think the award has become more diverse. So, this year's short listing is remarkable for its diversity, and I find that very exciting, very humbling and very important that the there's a sense now that many kinds of writing matter. I think it's more exclusive and exploratory than when I first had work shortlisted.

I have to say too that the last time I had a book shortlisted was the year that Alexis Wright won with Carpentaria. And I remember thinking at that time that everything will change now that an Indigenous woman has won the Miles Franklin, that the complexion and the country's social contract of the Miles seemed to have shifted at that point and I do think that happened. So it was actually thrilling to be at that listing at what felt like a really historic moment for writing in Australia.

ASTRID: I agree with you. The six works short listed are very diverse this year. What are your thoughts on the other five?

GAIL: I haven't read them all yet so it would be ignoble to comment. They all seem like lovely people, so far as I can say. And I've read other works by all of them, so although I haven't read the current list I've read a work by every one of the writers shortlisted. And that's very gratifying too. It's that odd sense in which you know people before you meet them by reading their works. And there was a little bit of that frisson of thinking, 'Oh gosh, I read that person's book ten years ago and here she is'. That's quite moving in a strange way.

ASTRID: I can only imagine. The Death of Noah Glass is a beautiful read, Gail. It explores, well, there are many different readings of it, but for me I found that it explored the connections between children and parents, between siblings and between lovers. It's also quite explicitly in some points a mediation on grief and art, understanding grief through art. What drove the work?

GAIL: I wrote it quite quickly during a period in Sicily. I had a writing retreat in Sicily for two months in Palermo. I'd gone there with another project, a 19th century novel, and found this... found Palermo very compelling, it's layered history very compelling. I'm very attracted to places that suggest to me a kind of layering of time, the infolding of time, the sense that time past is still usurping the present or interrupting the present.

So, when I was there I started playing around with a metaphor that I'd come across in philosophy, of the discovery of one's parent's body excavated from a bog or from ice, and the parent is younger than the child. And that's such a poignant and difficult idea to contemplate. It's a narrative for me that's full of questions about what is someone's life and a lifetime and what are the relations between parents and children? The forms of both intimacy and estrangement.

So it sort of began there. I wrote that and wrote through it in situ as it were. And I've always been interested in art history. I studied art history for a while and the work of Piero. Piero della Francesca figures in the book. But also art generally. Why does it matter to us as it does? How do we find ourselves in artworks? How do we know ourselves to be complicated in the art encounter, the encounter with aesthetic? And also how does art console us against loss, against grief, against suffering, against death? So, all of those questions were sort of swirling around. I've always wanted to write - and often have written in fact, I'm quite a repetitive writer in some ways - I did want to write very seriously about that idea of the consolation of art, and that there is an aesthetic dimension that we all meet and encounter and how to value that, how to you understand that.

ASTRID: Now, your trip to Sicily that was part of a residency, is that correct?

GAIL: No, I took some leave and I went on the Internet and hired an AirBnB.

ASTRID: I love that.

GAIL: I've never been to Sicily, I had no idea what I was getting into. The Internet wasn't working, which was very handy in many ways. And so yes... But in the old town, in the very centre of the old town.

ASTRID: Palermo features of course in the novel, quite a bit of the action happens there. Some of the story also... In the flashbacks in the story to Noah's childhood, there is an old leprosarium in the northern part of Western Australia. And as I was reading and the stories between the generations unfolded, it struck me as quite an unusual comparison between Paloma and a leprosarium in a very remote region in Australia and I thought I would not find this anywhere else in literature. How did you bring those places together?

GAIL: I'm very interested in cross-cultural experience. And I'm interested in the fact that Australians travel so much and we drag our peculiar histories with us - and mine too include remote places and growing up in the bush - and we find ourselves in these sort of centres of European civilisation. And that sense of what we understand, what we know and what we don't know, the way in which our lives are invisible to others.

So, the book is unusual in that it starts with the death of Noah Glass. His story extends backwards, mostly the six weeks before his death, but as you say further back to his childhood, which is a very unusual childhood in the Kimberly at a leprosarium. His children's stories extend forward for about six weeks after his death. So, I did want the reader to have a sense of that layering of time, the complication of family that we both intersect and do not intersect. We both know each other and are estranged from each other, and I find that one of the issues that writing can deal with very well. So, because writing is so faceted it can engage many lives internally, the invisible lives of others that we don't see. It enables us to as a reader to shift between planes of being, of consciousness and of time.

ASTRID: Tell me about how you interwove grief throughout all of this. I mean as the title tells us there is a death in the novel. Grief is such a personal thing, and yet none of us have a handbook on how to deal with it.

GAIL: Yes, grief is very capsizing. And there is of course a motif of drowning in that book, an immersion. Noah was the man who didn't drown, so... I'm interested in the biblical story of Noah, because it exists in the Koran, in the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition. He is the most virtuous man on the planet. He is the man who is saved because of his virtue. He is the man saved from drowning. And in very old frescoes of Noah you see him on the ark with his two sons and their wives and all the animals, and you see people drowning around him, kind of reaching out. There's a very famous image in Palermo of a drowned man with a bird picking at his chest as he drowns, and it's just heartbreaking.

So, I didn't want to encourage grief in a wider sense too, I think, in terms of our historical moment. When you are somewhere like Sicily you cannot but hear about the immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean. We have this issue in Australia, of course. SIEVx 365 people dying with SIEVx in 2001, I think it was. [NOTE: The Tampa crisis occurred in 2001 and had 433 people aboard, the SIEV disaster occurred in 2013 and had 358 people on board]. The idea of how you memorialise the drowned and the saved. What does it mean to be one of the saved, one of the lucky ones? So that makes it all sound very abstract and very planned, but I think that I was trying to splice together different ethical responses to ideas of grief and loss, some of which were world historical and of a particular contemporary moment, and some of which deal with the utterly personal, losing a parent and how that eclipses everything and makes the children or the loved ones of that parent recast everything in the light of their death.

So, grief is a very tenacious emotion. It's not easily relinquished and it keeps interrupting. You think you've done it and then it returns. And that too, that idea of unbidden return was something I wanted to think about.

ASTRID: You are a beautiful writer and I kept finding my struck by individual sentences or phrases that you put together. I find your vocabulary is so very evocative. You can conjure for me what it's like to see a renovated terrace in Sydney, which you know I grew up in Sydney and I miss the place, but reading it in Melbourne, you made me laugh out loud, even though this was in the middle of a paragraph where you know Martin is grieving and wondering what he's doing in the world, and yet your writing is so powerful it can cut through on so many levels.

How do you go about crafting a sentence? Do you edit line by line yourself? Do you go for the beauty of how it is said out loud?

GAIL: All of those things. I do it line by line. I'm very interested in the fluency of the sentence, how sentence sounds. But I'm also interested in what language knows, what language can describe and can't describe, and pushing a little further beyond the familiar and the complacent to try to know an image in it's radical specificity. So, I try very hard to describe the sensual moment of apprehension. And that means that I'm writing I hope from inside the body. So I'm always being told how intellectual my works are and how abstract, but I think of them as very bodily and very much based on almost a cinematographic consciousness of the primacy of the image, the way images claim us and then we have to try to fit them with words or with our emotions or with our memories. So, that idea is the way that our moments of consciousness are usurped by the world of images. That's there in all of my writing and continues to preoccupy me, because for me in any case it's something fundamentally about being inside a body, the ways we see and feel and know the world around us.

ASTRID: Gail this is your seventh novel. What compels you to write and to explore these things?

GAIL: Writing is a way of thinking. It's a way of making meaning. I think that for me it's a form of hope. It's very easy to become pessimistic and cynical, there is so much encouraging us to do so at this moment. I'd like to think that writing is an act of making meaning and finding meaning, however contingent and however partial, that it's an attempt at meaning. And I think that in my writing love is at the basis of that meaning. How do we love the world and how do we love other people? And that there's something in that that is enough to keep us here. It's that Auden line, you must 'love one another or die'. There is nothing else to keep you here.

I mean I think that that idea of enhancing attachment to the world and to other people, that seems to me something that writing can do. I believe in that, corny and anachronistic as it sounds, so old fashioned.

ASTRID: I don't think it is corny.

GAIL: Thank you. But that idea of a profound attachment to the world and to others that makes you cherish a stranger as much as you cherish yourself, to recognise the irreducible specificity of the stranger, and to recognise that the world, for all its desecrations and despondencies, still has within it the capacity to arouse wonder. That seems to me worth notating, worth thinking about, worth including in a text that you want to lead other people through as a kind of knowledge.

ASTRID: Gail, where are you taking us all next? Do you have a work in progress?

GAIL: I just finished a new book, which is about gold mining.

ASTRID: Oh, congratulations. I can not wait to read it.

GAIL: Well, it's a little odd. It's a sort of Irish Australian novel. It begins in Ireland and goes back in history to the early gold rushes in Victoria and Western Australia and right to the present moment. It has a big section in Melbourne, in it actually, in Brunswick.

ASTRID: I can't wait for you to explain Melbourne to me. Thank you so much, Gail.

GAIL: Thank you.

Jennifer Mills

ASTRID: Jennifer Mills, congratulations and welcome back to The Garret.

JENNIFER: Thank you Astrid, it's great to be back.

ASTRID: Now I had the pleasure of interviewing you about a year ago for Dyschronia, the work that you are shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. And back then I asked you about prizes and short listings and how they do or don't impact you as a writer. Back then you said they don't, however, short listings and prizes do help readers find and discover your work. Is that still how you feel?

JENNIFER: I think so, yeah. The prize culture is quite antithetical to the actual writing. But of course, I'm celebrating the success and seeing the positives from it, and if it gets more people to read the book and think about the issues then I'm happy.

ASTRID: Now we are sitting in the New South Wales State Library in the Miles Franklin Room, it's all very impressive, and I am struck by a contrast. Your work, Dyschronia, was also shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards for the Best Science Fiction Novel. Now I have to say I have judged the Aurealis Awards before, and I have never come across a work that crosses these two prizes really. I mean that's quite extraordinary. I think that speaks to the way you write and what you write about. How do you feel?

JENNIFER: I think that there's a change in the air with this stuff personally, because literary fiction is really grappling with its inability to understand this rapidly changing environment. So, we've lost what was probably always an illusion of this idea of nature as a static and eternal thing. So, a lot of writers are looking to science fiction for ways to think through the issues ands conceptualise.

For me I think it's something I've always played with, just because that reflects my reading. But I'm not the first person to be writing in this sort of crossover way. I mean Jane Rawson won the Aurealis Awards and was long listed for the Miles Franklin I think. James Bradley's work Clade crossed over as well, and so I think there's quite a few of us termiting away at the dominance of literary realism.

ASTRID: I like that phrase termiting away. Can we go back to what you just said about literary fiction grappling with talking about nature and the environment. Do you see literary fiction itself changing?

JENNIFER: Oh yeah, I do. I think... maybe what we call bourgeois realism is losing its dominance. A couple of years ago McKenzie Wark wrote a piece in Verso about this, and they said that the kind of fiction that takes climate change seriously isn't taken seriously as fiction. And I like to think that I'm evidence of that changing.

ASTRID: I like to think so too. What is the most common response you get from readers about Dyschronia.

JENNIFER: Well, a kind of enthusiastic bafflement is my favourite response.

ASTRID: What do you mean by that?

JENNIFER: The book tends to confuse people, and people who are ready for that and up for that as readers are my readers. So I do have some responses that are pure bafflement. But the ones that I like are happy bafflement.

ASTRID: So what are they baffled about?

JENNIFER: Well, I think that the book sort of tumbles you through timelines in an interesting way. So it's formally experimental in that sense, and towards the end of the novel there's some quite dramatic play with time, which is kind of confusing to read and was very confusing to write as well. I think... It's a challenging novel, and I wanted it to be a challenging novel because I think you need that. You need to be tumbled through time in order to recalibrate your sense of time and order, and that's what I think we need to do in order to change our relationship with nature.

ASTRID: Can you tell me about the title?

JENNIFER: Dyschronia is a word that I made up.

ASTRID: I love it though.

JENNIFER: I also googled it as soon as I made it up and found that it appeared in some music criticism by Simon Reynolds, and also the work of Mark Fisher who I have read widely for many years, and I've been influenced by his sense of hauntology and his writing a lot. And so I was really happy to find that little chime there.

It means literally time sickness. It's a diagnosis that I give the main character Sam, but it's also a diagnosis I suppose of the cultural moment. I think we've lost a sense of the future that we were promised. We're grieving a future that has... that is being taken away rapidly. We're grieving a past and a loss of animal life, plant life, natural world. But there's also this struggle of imagining the future and hoping and looking forward. And how do we do that? How do we how do we change? So, I think for me it all came back, kept coming back to the question of time. And when you're a novelist, time is your material. I think it was Margaret Atwood said that all novels are about time. So yeah, that was where the title came from.

ASTRID: Now Dyschronia can be read in so many ways. It is of course literary fiction and that is why it is on the shortlist. I personally read it as dystopian fiction, and there will be many other potential readings. It feels prescient. This is the year of course that The Guardian has said that - The Guardian newspaper - is no longer going to use the term climate change they're going to use climate crisis, climate emergency. From speaking to before I know this book took you about seven years to write. You seem to have got it out in the world at the perfect moment.

JENNIFER: It's funny that you say that because it felt like it was really stuck in the works for a long time. And I was haunted by this feeling of too lateness. The whole time that I was writing it off was feeling that every UN summit, every meeting, every election, we were failing and it was always going to come to late. Maybe that's just who human beings are. We arrive at conclusions in hindsight, I don't know. But yeah, the timing of it it's really interesting given what else is going on in the world.

ASTRID: You are a writer, and you obviously write about what interests you and what you care about. But as a writer who in that sense has a public platform, do you feel a responsibility to write stories that help us understand? Or point us to understanding?

JENNIFER: Absolutely. I think it's the responsibility of a storyteller to be of help somehow. Whether that's a comfort or a cathartic way of helping people through the emotional terrain, or whether it's a more intellectual kind of unpicking of issues I think. It's certainly why I keep going back to my desk, is because I have a feeling that stories can help us. And it's just as simple and as complicated as that.

ASTRID: So given how long it took you to fully complete and get Dyschronia out into the world... I spoke to you about a year ago and here you are, the work is still at the forefront of the literary world's consciousness in Australia. How are you going speaking about this book for a year?

JENNIFER: It's been 18 months since the release, actually Astrid. It has been good to be able to focus on the issue publicly as well. I'm cautious about becoming a climate emergency novelist. I think, while I will always be really obsessed with this issue in a way, it's not the only thing that obsesses me in the world. And there's a lot that we need to change.

ASTRID: So much.

JENNIFER: But it's quite good to have this short listing come along now, because I'm quite far through the next book so I'm able to be a little distant from it as well. And I hope that this is an opportunity to speak more about what needs to change and how we think about these issues.

ASTRID: So in a previous interview you called writing fiction your true love. Can you tell us about this book that you're working on? Is it fiction?

JENNIFER: It is fiction. It's a novel and it's a ghost story.

ASTRID: A ghost story.

JENNIFER: So there's certainly some darkness, there's a little bit of inflection of horror, which is a journey that I love. But I won't tell you anymore at this stage.

ASTRID: That is very fair enough. What is your favourite work on this year's shortlist?

JENNIFER: I have only read half of the shortlist. But I've really loved Rodney Hall's novel. I think it's a really politically engaged book, and it examines the tyranny of the body and the webs of power that we're all in in really interesting ways. I also really loved Melissa Lukashenko's book so much. I interviewed her at Adelaide Writers Week this year. Those books are really exciting for me.

ASTRID: And given your career in the arts sector in Australia, what do you think about the diversity on the short list this year?

JENNIFER: It's improving I think. I mean, we haven't... We're not seeing enough writers of colour on these lists, but I think it's improving. And there's certainly a consciousness that it must improve, it's filtered up to judging.

ASTRID: I could not agree more. Jennifer, thank you so much.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

Melissa Lucashenko

ASTRID: Melissa Lukashenko, welcome to The Garret.

MELISSA: Thank you Astrid. Pleasure to be here.

ASTRID: You have been on my dream interview list for a while.

MELISSA: Dream no more.

ASTRID: I had to miss an interview with you last year, so thank you very much for being here. Now we're here to talk about Too Much Lip, for which you are shortlisted for the Miles. And of course, you were also on the list for the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier's Prize for Indigenous Writing. Congratulations for the coverage this work is getting.

MELLISA: Thanks. Thanks. Let's hope it's third time lucky.

ASTRID: What do you think the appeal of the book is?

MELISSA: I think people are attracted to the energy in the book. You know, we live in an era where it's easy to feel overwhelmed. It's easy to feel powerless. And my book was very much kicking back against that, you know, a big part of our assumed powerlessness is our decision that we're powerless. As you know, Aboriginal people, as women, as poor people, whatever our marginalisation is, there is people massing and protesting in the streets of Hong Kong as we sit here, and I think that's just one demonstration that it takes a shift in consciousness to say that we actually do have power, and that's that's really appealing to people that feel like they don't.

ASTRID: So what for you is the role of fiction?

MELISSA: The role of fiction. Well, the role that fiction has played in my life is to provide role models in a way. You know, I've never met a black American sharecropping family, as Alice Walker wrote about in The Third Life of Grange Copeland. I've never met Malaysian Chinese people like Tash Aw writes about in Five Star Billionaire. But we can enter these other worlds, we can meet people and learn from them in the pages of fiction. I guess that's the role it plays for me.

And on a more amorphous level maybe it's about an energy, a rhythm of living, I suppose. When you get into the real greats of world literature, it's something a bit more subtle there. But I think at the level I'm writing at it's saying to people these are the possibilities I see, and maybe they'll speak to you in your life.

ASTRID: When you think about the greats of world literature, who are they for you

MELISSA: Well, it's the canon. It's the Western canon. But it's also people for me like Keri Hulme with her amazing book The Bone People, and it's Alexis Wright with Carpentaria and The Swan Book. You know, there's all kinds of lesser known books that would be on my list of greats that wouldn't necessarily be on everyone's list of greats.

You know, I've been reading Patrick White recently because I'm writing a novel of colonial Brisbane and I don't want to reflexively dismiss Patrick White because he's a dead white male. And so when I go to his work and I look at A Fringe of Leaves, you know, I'm astonished to find that what he did in that book is I think completely different to what I'd expected. You know, I expected this portrayal of Aboriginal people as savages and cannibals to be just sheer unthinking racism. But instead, what he's doing is paralleling the savagery of convictism with the assumed savagery of Aboriginal people. So you know, Patrick White would be on that list. There's all sorts of people, and you can find inspiration in the strangest quarters of course.

ASTRID: You can. And as we sit here Patrick White is in the room with us.

MELISSA: [Laughter] Figurative speaking. He is not glowering at us in the corner.

ASTRID: Some of his books are up on the shelves - so we are in the Mitchell Library in the Miles Franklin Room.

Now Melissa, you are no stranger to literary awards. Mullumbimby, which is such a beautiful, book was long listed for this award in 2014. And you had been a regular recipient, if I can phrase it that way, of prizes since your debut work Steam Pigs in the late 90s. For our listeners, what is this literary circuit like?

MELISSA: Well, when you first get shortlisted it's incredible. It's always incredibly exciting, but it's incredibly exciting in a different way because at you know 27 or 30 or whatever I was when Steam Pigs came out, you know, you don't realise that it's a very different thing being on a shortlist to actually winning. And so your hopes are elevated. By this stage in my career with my sixth novel out, I think I - like most writers, you know at this stage of their careers - you recognise that the short list is really the important thing. You know, money aside, the short list is where you know you've reached a certain level of accomplishment and recognition. That he book has hit its mark. And after that it's, you know, it's very much pot luck who out of the short list gets the gong in the end. So yeah, I'm really pleased. It was... you know my goal when I knew I was on the Miles Franklin long list this time was to make the shortlist, and anything else is just a huge bonus.

ASTRID: When I read Too Much Lip the most powerful aspect of the novel was the strength of the voice that came through, especially that of Kerry Salter, but all of the characters in the work. Kerry for me didn't feel like a character I was reading and meeting in a book. She felt like someone who exists nd I might meet one day. How do you write that?

MELISSA: Well, it's great to hear you say that. People do say that about some of my characters, and for a long time in my writing career I also had the sense that I could turn a corner and run into Ray Glover or Sue Wilson or you know Kerry Salter or Jo from Mullumbimby. That that sense has now gone for whatever reason, I think because I feel very much in control of what I put on the page these days in one way. In another way, you never know what you're doing writing a book until it's done, and then you reflect and you wish you knew that at the beginning of writing the book. But then of course you would have written a different book.

Again, it comes back to this idea of rhythm and energy. And it's the energy of the women that I've come in contact with and known and loved for many years now, who cycle in and out of prison, and the women at Sisters Inside who are support workers and activists. The energy of that organisation and the energy of that mob is something that I tapped into both consciously or unconsciously I think.

And I wanted the book to be about an energetic response to a society that says you're worthless and/ or dangerous. And I wanted it to be a big fuck you, basically, because you know these are women who give no fucks. There are people out there without much to lose, and I wanted to write a heroic black female character. And so you know the symbol of the stolen Harley is obviously the...

ASTRID: Kerry uses that well. [Laughter]

MELISSA: It's very much a shorthand for what she is on about. She's a rebel. She's living outside the law and she's on the run, and the Harley says all those things.

ASTRID: In other interviews I've read you have been very open saying this was a difficult book to write.

MELISSA: Yeah, it was. ASTRID: Now that it is out in the world, you have readers, you have a short listing for the Miles Franklin, how do you feel given that you know there's a bit of you in that book?

MELISSA: I feel relieved in a way that the risks that I took paid off, seem to have paid off. And as I've said in other interviews, every time I thought it wasn't the right time to go where I go in this book, someone has come up on my Facebook feed or approached me in person, or I've been told secondhand about stories that made this book necessary to write. And that happened as recently as the day before I flew to Sydney. A woman on the Gold Coast telling me her horror stories of trauma, and again reinforcing as it's been reinforced time and time and time again that someone had to write this book. And I felt like it was my responsibility to write the book.

ASTRID: That's a really interesting word that you use, responsibility. I've spoken to Jennifer Mills - also on the short list - today about what responsibility she feels as a writer. Can you explore that for me?

MELISSA: Yeah, I'm glad you spoke to Jennifer. I think she's a very thoughtful woman and a very thoughtful writer.

Well, you know Silence is Violence is the saying, and I forget who said... it's one of the Jewish writers said the most radical thing that anyone can do in any given moment is to say what is happening. You know, to say exactly what is happening. And so when I look around where I live on Yuggera land, and see what's going on, you know, it's only part of my project. My life's project is a civilizing project to bring back civilized values to modern Australia. Our civilization was disrupted, has been disrupted by two hundred and thirty years of convictism, and that's profoundly changed the face of Aboriginal civilization. But our values remain, and our aspirations to live as a humane and civilised people still remain, even though it is clouded over by post-traumatic stress and present traumatic stress.

So, my responsibility is the responsibility of every adult Aboriginal person, probably of every adult citizen of the planet, which is to work towards justice and fairness and a place, a society, where everybody's humanity can be respected.

ASTRID: Do you find readers of different cultures or backgrounds react differently?

MELISSA: Oh yeah, very much so. For a long time I didn't realise how confronting my work was to non aboriginal readers, white readers in particular, white Australian readers in particular, because things that we take as commonplace are... You know, there's all the white fragility to consider.

I was listening to a conversation about Tara June Winch's new book The Yield, and the white reviewer was reacting positively, but reacting to Tara naming a town as Massacre Plains. And when I read the book it didn't even register with me that she'd called the Town Massacre Plans, like of course you would, it's just a matter of fact.

ASTRID: It's what happened.

MELISSA: And it literally had almost made no impact on me. And yet this white reviewer commented on it and was struck by it and had, you know, thoughts about it in all sorts of different ways, and that was just another reminder of how we come at books with a cultural lens, with a gendered lens, you know, with a class lens.

And the tricky thing when I write is that I'm trying to bridge several worlds in my books. So when this book was reviewed and someone said it's both lowbrow and highbrow, I was really pleased because that's actually what I'm aiming to do. I want someone with a Grade 12 education, or even a grade 10 education, to be able to read my books and enjoy them and understand them, and I want to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. So you know, it's a broad church for an atheist to be writing into.

ASTRID: Thank you so much Melissa.

MELISSA: Thanks Astrid.

Thanks to Perpetual, the Trustee of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, for organising the writers featured in this special episode of The Garret.